ELMONT, N.Y. – With a breathtaking, wire-to-wire tour de force under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, undefeated Justify became racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday at Belmont Park, sweeping to a 1 ¾-length victory over Gronkowski to add the 150th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets to his triumphs in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
The victory over Belmont Park’s sweeping 1 ½-mile oval was the sixth straight for Justify, who joined Seattle Slew – also a wire-to-wire Belmont winner in 1977 – as the only undefeated winners of the Triple Crown. All six of the rangy chestnut colt’s wins have come in 2018, beginning with a maiden victory on February 18 at Santa Anita Park and culminating just shy of 16 weeks later in the Belmont.
“This horse ran a tremendous race,” said Smith, who at 52 is the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. “He’s so gifted. He’s sent from heaven. He’s just amazing.
“Did you see him standing in the gate?” added Smith, sporting the red-and-gold silks of China Horse Club after having worn the white-and-green colors of WinStar Farm in the Derby and Preakness. “He’s standing so still … I actually thought, ‘He’s not going to break today.’ I mean, he left there like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso, New Mexico.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who saddled American Pharoah to end a 37-year-old Triple Crown drought in 2015, thus became the second trainer along with “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons to train two Triple Crown winners, with Fitzsimmons having conditioned Gallant Fox (1930) and his son, Omaha (1935).
Other Triple Crown winners include Sir Barton (1919), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973).
“It’s amazing,” said Baffert, who had Triple Crown near-misses with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). “It never gets old. American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love.
“[This horse] was showing me the same signs [as American Pharoah], he showed me that same brilliance. Superior horse. I mean, he could have won every race on the undercard today. He’s just that kind of horse.”
Smith, who won his third Belmont to go with those in 2010 (Drosselmeyer) and 2013 (Palace Malice), sent Justify straight to the lead from the No. 1 post, which since 1905 has produced 24 winners of the Belmont, the most of any post position.
The big colt took command before the first turn, settling into a comfortable rhythm as stablemate Restoring Hope and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo kept him in their sights. Galloping through fractions of 23.37 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 48.11 for the half, 1:13.21 for three quarters and 1:38.09 for the mile, Justify entered the far turn without having been asked for run, still two lengths clear of his stablemate and closest rival, with Bravazo hanging on in third.
Approaching the quarter pole, with the crowd on its feet and screaming, Gronkowski was hitting his best stride from far back, picking off a half-dozen rivals to gain third even as Vino Rosso was moving into second. Once in the stretch, however, Justify continued to roll along, giving no signs of quitting, and Gronkowski had to settle for second, with second choice Hofburg coming on to edge Vino Rosso by a neck for show.
“He broke a bit slow,” said jockey Jose Ortiz aboard Gronkowski, who was making his American debut. “He’s a horse from England. After that, I didn’t have any choice. I had to drop in and save all the ground. He handled the dirt. I worked him twice and he handled it, so I was optimistic. We got a good trip, it worked out well. He broke a bit slow. I wish he would have broke a little bit better.”
“There was no pace and nobody put any pressure on [Justify] and he kind of walked the dog going around there,” said Bill Mott, Hall of Fame trainer of Hofburg. “They were going slow and [jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr.] said he didn’t want to make some crazy move down the backside to go join him, which probably wouldn’t have made any sense. Our horse came running. He ran well. I mean, for not having any pace, he finished up very well.
“Mike [Smith]’s great, obviously, and Justify is probably a great horse,” he added. “I mean, they’re a good combination and they got the job done. We saw another Triple Crown winner. A lot of people are happy about it.”
Justify’s winning time was 2:28.18 for the 1 ½ miles over a track rated fast, unlike his two previous wins, which came over sloppy tracks at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.
In addition to the three Triple Crown races, Justify’s resume includes his maiden win, an optional claiming victory, and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, all with a combined winning margin of 23 ¾ lengths.
Owned in partnership by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, Justify earned $800,000 for the win and boosted his bankroll to $3,798,000.
Completing the order of finish after Vino Rosso were Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy.